Voice control in BBC iPlayer pilot demos Microsoft's AI ambitions

An internal BBC pilot in collaboration with Microsoft shows how voice control could be used on the iPlayer TV streaming app

The BBC is conducting a proof of concept trial using artificial intelligence (AI) software from Microsoft to control its iPlayer service.

The experimental version of iPlayer lets viewers talk to their television to find their favourite programmes, the BBC posted in a blog.

The broadcaster said it uses AI to log people into their accounts and enables them to find BBC TV programmes using their voice.

Microsoft said the AI software compares the tone, modulation and pitch of the user’s voice to a sample he or she has previously uploaded to the service. If the two voice patterns match, the viewer is logged in to his or her BBC account, replacing the need to type in a username and password.

“As the technology around us continues to evolve, it is interesting to consider how we might soon be talking naturally with the range of digital devices that have become such an important part of everyday life for many,” said Cyrus Saihan, head of digital partnerships at the BBC. 

“With voice-controlled interfaces such as Amazon’s Alexa, Apple’s Siri, Google’s Assistant and Microsoft’s Cortana starting to gain popularity, there is a good chance that in some situations, speaking to a computer will be the main way we interact with many of our digital devices,” he added.

Saihan said the internal prototype gives users the option to select what they want to watch by talking to their device. “Saying ‘BBC, show me something funny’ brings up a selection of comedy programmes. If you say ‘BBC, what’s going on in the world?’ the BBC News channel turns on and starts playing. Saying ‘BBC, put EastEnders on for me’ starts playing the latest episode.”

The BBC plans to redesign its digital iPlayer service by 2020 to better reflect the needs of the content rental and streaming environment. A voice-based AI interface could be one feature that makes it into the new design if this pilot is a success.

Read more about BBC technology

Microsoft is very much committed to bolstering its AI capabilities. In the “future opportunity” section of its latest 10-K US Securities and Exchange Commission filing, Microsoft listed one of its key objectives as: “Applying AI to drive insights and act on our customers’ behalf by understanding and interpreting their needs using natural methods of communication.”

The software giant said its future growth depended on its ability to transcend current product category definitions, business models and sales motions. “We have the opportunity to redefine what customers and partners can expect and are working to deliver new solutions that reflect the best of Microsoft,” it said.

The proof of concept with the BBC iPlayer demonstrates where the company could be looking to apply AI in the future.

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